Monday, August 25, 2014

Why do science?

While preparing for the Intuit TedX conference (see my last post), the organizers also asked one other hard question: why should we (i.e. nonscientists) care about neutrinos or astrophysics.  Scientists do not like to hear these questions, but we ignore them at our peril - especially funding peril.   The people of the United States are paying for much of our research through their taxes, and they have both a right and a good reason to ask these questions.    Unfortunately, they are not easy to answer, at least for me.   When asked, I usually reply along one of two lines, neither of them completely satisfying.

1) We don't know what this is useful for now, but it will likely be (or could be) useful one day.   This is easily backed up by many examples of physical phenomena that were long considered totally irrelevant to everyday live, but are now part of everyday technology.   Quantum mechanics and electromagnetism are two good examples, but perhaps the best is general relativity.  General relativity was long considered only applicable to abstruse  astrophysical phenomena, such as gravity near a black hole, but it is now an important correction for GPS receivers to produce accurate results.   This is a strong argument for research that has a clear connection to modern technology.  For IceCube and ARIANNA, whose main  purpose is to track down astrophysical cosmic-ray particle accelerators, one can argue that understanding these cosmic accelerators may teach us how to make better (plasma powered?) accelerators here on Earth.  There are many more examples of esoteric phenomena that remain just that, esoteric phenomena. 

2) Science is interesting and important for its own sake.  I believe this, and would venture to say that most scientists believe it.  Many non-scientists also believe it.  However, many do not, and, for the people who don't, I know of no good argument to make them change their mind.  This view was nicely put forth by former Fermilab director Robert Wilson, who testified before congress in 1969.  He gave the value of science as

"It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with those things.

It has nothing to do with the military. I am sorry."

When pressed about military or economic benefits (i.e. competing with the Russians), he continued:

"Only from a long-range point of view, of a developing technology. Otherwise, it has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about.

In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending."

This argument puts science on an equal footing with the arts,  music or poetry, endeavors that are largely supported by the public, whereas science is largely government funded.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to put these two arguments together in a way that they do not interfere with each other.     I wish that these arguments were stronger, either individually or together.     In short, I wrestle with this question a lot, and would welcome comments from scientists or nonscientists who have thought about how to answer this question.


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Christmas in Antarctica: Presenting science to the general public

I recently had a very interesting, but sobering experience - giving a TedX talk in Mountain View, at a conference sponsored by Intuit (yes, the TurboTax people; they also make accounting software).   The audience was mostly Intuit employees, from diverse backgrounds - sofware engineers, accountants,  HR people, PR people, etc.  There were 15 speakers  (+4 videos of previously presented TedX talks) - me, a geologist, and 13 non-scientists.   Most were excellent, and it was interesting to watch the diverse presentation styles.  I was upstaged by the following speaker - a 10 year old.  She was the world champion in Brazilian ju-jitsu, and spoke eloquently about being a warrior.  Other presenters included a magician, an ex-CNN anchor speaking on money management, a pianist, and a capoeira group.

In discussing my talk, the organizers emphasized a couple of things: tell a good story, and engage with the audience.   These are two basics, but are way too rarely found in scientific presentations.  Our material is important and interesting to us, so we automatically assume that the audience will feel the same way.  This is not true!   I'm as guilty as any other scientist here, and really appreciated being reminded of these basics, both by the organizers beforehand, and while listening to the other speakers.     

Over the past few years, my kids have been studying 5-paragraph essays.  I learned this too: an introduction with hypothesis, 3 arguments (1 paragraph each) and a concluding paragraph.   My kids learned it a bit differently.  The first paragraph must start with a 'grabber:' a sentence to grab the readers attention.    Likewise, the organizers encouraged me to start with a grabber, to engage the audience, by asking about going someplace cold for the holidays.  This led naturally to me to being in Antarctica for the winter holidays, and thence into ARIANNA and neutrino astronomy.   This may be the back door into the science, but times have changed, and it seemed to work well. 

As scientists, we need to remember these lessons when we talk to non-scientists.  Why should the audience care?  Are we speaking to them or at them?  Do we have an engaging presentation, with a good, clear  story line?  Is it at a level that they can follow?

These principles also apply to scientific presentations.  How often have we sat through a seminar without any idea why the material is important to anybody?   Or one filled with incomprehensible jargon or page-long equations relating variables that are not clearly defined?   These are clear ways to avoid having to deal with job offers, etc.  We need to do better. 

So, ... thanks to Intuit, and Kara de Frias and Kimchi Tyler Chen (the lead organizers) for arranging a very interesting and educational day

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The third times a charm... 5 sigma

My last several posts concerned the observation of extra-terrestrial neutrinos.  The IceCube analysis, published in November, used 2 years of data to find evidence 'at the 4-sigma (standard deviation) level.' 4-sigma (standard deviations) refers to the statistical significance of the result.  If the probabilities for our observation are described by a Gaussian ('normal') distribution, then 4-sigma corresponds to a roughly 1 in 16,000 probability of being a statistical fluctuation.  This sounds like a pretty high standard, but, at least in physics, it is not normally considered enough to claim a discovery.  There are two reasons for this.

The first is known as 'trials factors.'  If you have a complex data set, and a powerful computer, it is pretty easy to do far more than 16,000 experiments, by, for example, looking in different regions of the sky, looking at different types of neutrinos, different energies, etc.  Of course, within a single analysis, we keep track of the trial factors - in a search for point sources of neutrinos, we know how many different (independent) locations we are looking in, and how many energy bins, etc.  However, this becomes harder when there are multiple analyses looking for different things.  If we publish 9 null results and one positive one, should we dilute the 1 in 16,000 to 1 in 1,600?   

In the broader world of science, it is well known that it is easier (and better for ones career) to publish positive results rather than upper limits.   So, the positive results are more likely to be published than negative.   Cold fusion (which made a big splash in the late 1980's) is a shining example of this.  When it was first reported, many, many physics departments set up cells to search for cold fusion.  Most of them didn't find anything, and quietly dropped the subject.  However, the few that saw evidence for cold fusion published their results.  The result was that a literature search could find almost as many positive results as negative ones.  However, if you asked around, the ratio was very different. 

The second reason is that the probability distribution may not be described by a Gaussian normal distribution, for any of a number of reasons.  One concerns small numbers; if there are only a few events seen, then the distributions are better described by a Poisson distribution than a Gaussian.  Of course, we know how to handle this now.  The second reason is more nebulous - there may be systematic uncertainties that are not well described by a Gaussian distribution.  Or, there may be unknown correlations between these systematic uncertainties.   We try to account for these factors in assessing significance, but this is a rather difficult point.

Anyway, that long statistical digression explains why our November  paper was entitled "Evidence for..." rather than "Discovery of..." 

Now, we have released a new result, available at  The analysis has been expanded to include a third year of data, without any other changes.  The additional year of data included another 9 events, including Big Bird.  The data looked much like the first two years, and so pushed the statistical significance up to 5.7 sigma.  Leading to the title "Observation of..."     Of course, 5 sigma doesn't guarantee that a result is correct, but this one looks pretty solid.

With this result, we are now moving from trying to prove the existence of ultra-high energy astrophysical neutrinos to characterizing the flux and, from that, hopefully, finally pinning down the source(s) of the highest energy cosmic rays.

Big Bird gets Energy

In a previous post, I wrote about our most energetic neutrino, Big Bird, but could not give you its energy.  I am happy to report that the energy has now been made public: 2.0 PeV, within about 12% (assuming that it is an electromagnetic cascade).  This is the most energetic neutrino yet seen.  For comparison, the energy of each proton circulating in the LHC beams at full energy (which will not be achieved until later this year) is about 0.007 PeV, 285 times lower.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Awards Roll in for IceCube

The IceCube observation of astrophysical neutrinos has been nicely (and quickly!) recognized. 

First, Physics World magazine recognized us their 2013 "Breakthrough of the year".   IceCube wont he top honors, beating out nine other stories, including the Rex-Isolde observation that some atomic nuclei are pear-shaped.

Then, Scientific American selected IceCube as one of their top 10 science stories of 2013. 

All-in-all, it was a pretty darn good month for IceCube. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Big Bird joins Bert and Ernie

Bert and Ernie have company!  IceCube has found another PeV neutrino, event more energetic than Bert or Ernie.   The pictures below shows the IceCube standard event display, with side and top views.  Unfortunately, some of the optical modules see so much light that you can’t see what’s happening near the neutrino interaction.  In fact, the photodetectors in the optical modules are badly saturated.  The two event displays below show the side and top views of Big Bird; the enormous hit in the nearby DOMs overwhelms the image.  Each colored sphere represents an optical module that observed light; the colors show the relative time of the hit, from red (earliest) through orange and yellow.  The size of the spheres shows the amount of light detected.

Like Bert and Ernie, it is well contained within the detector, with no sign of early hits that might signal an entering muon; it is quite clearly a neutrino induced cascade (particle shower).  

The event was found by LBNLs Lisa Gerhardt, on her last day working on IceCube, before she moved to a position focused on high-performance computing - still at LBNL, but now at the National Energy Research Supercomputer Center).   Talk about going out in style!

I was privileged to be able to first show this event at the 2013 International Cosmic Ray Conference (ICRC), in Rio de Janeiro, Jul2 2-9th.  I would have loved to blog about it earlier, but the only available reference is the writeup of my talk.  Because that writeup covers the evidence for extra-terrestrial neutrinos (my last two posts), we agreed not to post it publicly until the Science paper appeared.  Now that the Science paper is out, the writeup is available on the Cornell preprint server as arXiv:1311.6519.  

Unfortunately, the collaboration decided not to release any information on the event energy or direction, pending a systematic analysis, but it is a nice little monster.   As you should expect, we are working hard on these analyses, so I should be able to say more in the not too distant future.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Public Access to "Evidence for High-Energy Extraterrestrial Neutrinos at the IceCube Detector"

Our Science paper has now been posted to the Cornell preprint server (arXiv),  and is available at

Click on the 'PDF' link on the upper right to get the complete text.

For those of you not familiar with science publishing, the preprint server contains the full text (as of today) of  892,854 scientific papers, covering most of physics and math, as uploaded by the authors.  In high-energy and nuclear physics, virtually every relevant paper is uploaded to the server, usually at the same time that it is submitted to a journal or conference proceedings.  Although it does not provide the benefits of peer review, it does provide quick access to the latest work - papers appear between 24 and 48 hours after they are uploaded.

The server also has a search facility, but, for particle/nuclear physics, I prefer INSPIRE .  INSPIRE isn't perfect, but it has broader coverage than the arXiv, since it provides overage before 1995, when the arXiv was established.  The arXiv coverage was also very spotty for the first ~ decade of operation.  INSPIRE also covers most of the relevant articles that are not uploaded to the arXiv.